Dr. Jason Best, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Shepherd University, believes the year he spent as an American Council on Education Fellow has given him more tools to help strengthen Shepherd and the undergraduate student research offered by the university.
The ACE Fellows Program is the longest running higher education leadership development program in the United States. Its goal is to strengthen institutions and leadership in American higher education by identifying and preparing emerging leaders for senior positions in college and university administration.
Best was one of 41 Fellows who spent the 2015-2016 school year getting an in-depth look at higher education management. Best attended a number of retreats with national leaders who addressed issues like advocacy, strategic planning, institutional finances, legal issues, and crisis management. The Fellows applied these lessons to real-time case studies with cooperating institutions. Throughout the year, he had the opportunity to meet with numerous presidents, senior administration and faculty leaders, and governing board members at institutions of varying types and sizes, and met with state legislators, chancellors, and members of statewide higher education coordinating boards.
Best also spent the fall 2015 semester in residence at Misericordia University, a small Catholic university in Dallas, Pennsylvania. He was mentored by Misericordia President Thomas J. “Tom” Botzman and the university’s executive leadership team. Best describes Misericordia as being very similar in many ways to Shepherd and said he found his time there illuminating.
“I recognize that as you follow a president around all day, it’s a tiring job because the president of a college or university is always the president of a college or university no matter where they go, no matter what they do,” Best said. “It’s a challenging role.”
Best sits on Shepherd’s Board of Governors, serves on the Shepherd University Foundation Board of Directors and on the Foundation Executive Committee, and is a Hub Leader for the national Pulsar Search Collaboratory. He was the coordinator of Shepherd’s Secondary Science Education programs for a decade, is immediate past-president of the West Virginia Academy of Science, and has been a member of the National Advisory Committee for the PRAXIS Earth and Space Sciences Examination.
Each ACE Fellow is required to undertake a project that will benefit an important campus initiative. Best chose to focus on undergraduate research because he believes it’s important for all students in all disciplines to participate in research within their field.
“When you look at any number of surveys with employers, the skills for which they are asking across industries are the types of skills that are embedded within undergraduate research,” Best said. “So I worked with not only people at the host institution but here at the home institution to develop an overview of some of the issues and to really dive down and to look at how to make undergraduate research an implementable practice—one that is truly embedded within the fabric of the institution, that benefits all of our students.”
Best said when students engage in undergraduate research they are developing skills that employers want, including the ability to create, communicate, collaborate and solve problems.
“This is the essence of research within disciplines,” Best said. “Those skills, that professional engagement, crosses disciplinary boundaries, and crosses silos of intellectual thought.”
Best said he has come to numerous conclusions about undergraduate research. They include the need for commitment from faculty and administration, public and private funding, engagement from alumni and community partners and providing the diverse types of infrastructure needed to conduct research.
Best said his year as an ACE Fellow taught him that many institutions are dealing with the same issues and that some problems can be solved if colleges and universities work together to find solutions. He called the fellowship a transformative experience and said it will allow him to contribute to higher education in a way that he thinks will be beneficial for students as well as Shepherd.
“I have dedicated my adult professional life to higher education because I believe higher education is the key to addressing so many of our societal ills and to advancing the society in all of its realms,” he said. “Being able to have this deeper insight, being able to work with a network of people across the country who are similarly passionate, similarly engaged, similarly focused will allow me in whatever way I’m asked to be able to help elevate higher education as that essential light in the darkness.”